Last September, at the start of a regional “Arab Spring” tour, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Erdogan, spoke in Cairo to a gathering of Arab League foreign ministers.
Firing up his audience, he was met with much applause after declaring: “Israel must respect human rights and act as a normal country, and then it will be liberated from its isolation.”
Erdogan’s scolding of Israel was nearly matched by his condescension toward Egyptians, who he strongly advised should follow Turkey’s lead by entrenching secularism in its yet-to-be-written constitution.
His advice angered religiously conservative Egyptians, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. Essam el-Erian, deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, charged: “We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader, but we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future.”
Immediately following Erdogan’s visit, the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman acknowledged the Brotherhood’s reaction, adding that “Erdogan’s call for a secular order comes as a blow to those who were arguing for years that Erdogan was supporting Sunni elements in the region with the ultimate aim to create Islamist states.”
However, critics have argued in recent months that – despite Erdogan’s brazen statements – his pro-Islamist party has been moving in an increasingly illiberal direction.
Writing in the Guardian late last year, London-based Turkish academic and human rights activist Ayca Cubukcu pointed to “a growing disjuncture between those who promote modern-day Turkey as a democracy and those who experience Turkey as a land of arbitrary detentions, political repression and military destruction.”
She asked why any other country in the region would want to model a state “that imprisons professors, journalists, translators, lawyers, workers, and students and treats as terrorists the members of a political party representing millions of citizens.”
At the same time, the Economist magazine observed that the “West does not seem to notice the steady deterioration in human rights in Turkey, instead extolling it as a model for the Arab spring.”
Among the signs of deterioration, it noted that hundreds of students had been arrested (and, in many cases, brutally treated) for protesting against Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Among other issues, the protesters advocated for the rights of Kurds to be educated in their own language. Sadly, the plight of the Kurdish minority is a massive but largely neglected subject in its own right.
As to illiberal moves under the AKP, consider also the following, just a small part of a growing list:
• The Jan. 2 New York Times reported: “There are now 97 members of the news media in jail in Turkey, including journalists, publishers and distributors, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Union, a figure that rights groups say exceeds the number detained in China.”
• More recently, the June 2 Times reported from Istanbul that a Turkish court “charged Fazil Say, a classical and jazz pianist with an international career, with insulting Islamic values in Twitter messages, the latest in a series of legal actions against Turkish artists, writers and intellectuals for statements they have made about religion and Turkish national identity.”
• On June 4, the Globe and Mail carried an AP story about the anger among many females at what they consider to be Erdogan’s retrogressive attitude on women’s issues. This includes his view that abortions (which he wants to greatly restrict) and elective caesarean sections are nothing other than “secret plots” against Turkish growth.
What explains the West’s avoidance of Turkey’s assault on the rule of law? The Economist quoted a European ambassador in Ankara: “Europe is too mired in its own problems and America needs Turkey for regional security” – including its role as a bulwark against Iran’s influence.
In short, self-absorption rules on one side of the Atlantic, and expediency on the other.
Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
This column appears in the June 14 print issue of The CJN